Part Two – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism

Terrorism, Terrorists and Suicide Attacks: Our Representatives Fail to Shed much Light

The first post in this series took issue with the flaccid thinking of some academics and policy makers. They are, however, no worse that many non-academics (in the media and lobby groups) on the right.

Bren Carlill of AIJAC, recently wrote in The Australian, about the need to ban Hizbollah’s television station, al Manar.

In doing so, he tried to link The Lexicon project, the recently foiled terrorist attacks on a Sydney army base, and al Manar. He did this by building on the assumption that Islam is the common thread that menaces the West.

Of course, he included the caveat that not all Muslims are terrorists, and that was remarkably broad minded of him.

But Carlill failed to demonstrate exactly how Islam operates as the driving force behind terrorism. He assumes, and assumes we assume, that it is a given.

He is wrong.

At least there was a degree of analytic thought behind Carlill’s piece. The JCCV’s official response to The Lexicon project, however, is a study in arrogance: whoever actually wrote it has clear deficits in knowledge of Islam and terrorism, and this seems not to matter to our “representatives.” Like Carlill, they assume we all take Islam’s inherent link with terror as a given.

It’s even more galling because there are elements in the JCCV response that are worthy and important. They are quite correct in their preference for clear language over politically correct obfuscation.

Unfortunately, our leaders do not bolster this important argument with anything resembling evidence or serious thought regarding terrorism’s ultimate causes. Because of this, the JCCV’s contribution is merely one of linguistic quibbles that go nowhere near finding tangible solutions to the problem of radicalisation.

What both right wing lobbyists and left wing academics have in common, is that they damage genuine inquiry.

Facts are only selected according to whether they fit into a particular ideology. This results in each camp being more interested in proving the other wrong than in actually searching for concrete remedies.

All the partisan blather creates a din, and often causes disinterested parties to give up trying to make sense of  the noise. So let’s start from the beginning.


How can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate combatants?

That vile cliché, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, might seem seductive in some arenas, but it’s really a relativistic anti-framework.

It actually makes discussion of terrorism impossible. This is because it renders terrorism a purely subjective phenomenon.

When I fel my blood pressure’s getting too low, I sometimes enjoy reading the letters to the editor in The Age or SMH. Here, well meaning folk of the inner cities enjoy writing that America/Australia/The Western colonial project are as much terrorist entities as a Palestinian who blows himself up in a Tel Aviv nightclub.

Most of us know this is a profoundly stupid assertion. But why?

One way to deal with this moral relativism is to follow the lead of – yes – an academic. Renowned scholar, Alex Schmid, distinguishes between guerrillas (irregular fighters who obey certain conventions) and terrorists (who do not).

In a bout of fierce clear thinking, he points out that if a terrorist act were committed in war time, it would constitute a war crime – a contravention of the international rules of war established in the Hague Regulations and the Geneva Conventions.

These laws require that combatants do not target non-combatants, and that they do not breach the laws of war, regardless of the just or unjust nature of their cause. These laws apply to both state and non-state actors.

The issue of intent regarding the killing of civilians is central. There is a moral and legal  distinction (in international law) between unintentional killing (collateral damage as a part of war) and intentional targeting of civilians as its actual combat tactic.

These are the crucial elements that the above-mentioned letter writers must avoid in order to maintain their worldview.

Far more importantly, as much as certain academics perform infuriating feats of self-serving, wisdom-poor “research,” scholars like Schmid are crucial to our understanding of terrorism.

It is here that the JCCV failed so spectacularly. Their response does not read as though its writer/s had read any research on the matter. That is why the JCCV was unable to provide any substantial recommendations beyond, “Call ‘em Muslims!”


Within the piles of academic papers and books written on terrorism – whether the writing is illuminating or stupid – certain important patterns start to emerge. The raging controversies are also enlightening.

One thing almost all scholars agree on is that there is no overarching terrorist psychological profile. Insanity or any other psychopathology must be ruled out as a common factor.

So if terrorists are not insane, what impels them to attack?

While some terrorist groups enjoy broad support from their communities, and while many non-violent members of various communities share the political beliefs, backgrounds and goals of terrorists, it is still only a very small proportion of these communities that actually turn to violence.

To keep things as simple as possible, this series focuses on suicide terrorism. While most studies agree that male Muslims make up the majority of suicide terrorists, there is disagreement about whether they are predominantly younger or older than other terrorists. There is also disagreement about the role poverty plays. And even maleness is not a determining factor. There have been a number of female suicide bombers.

What is generally agreed is that there has to have been some sort of process of radicalisation before a terrorist is willing to sacrifice his/her own life, and that there is always some factor that makes him/her feel disengaged or rejected from his society.

The question then becomes, what is special about the type of disengagement or rejection that leads to suicide terrorism?

Again, there is the problem that many people are disengaged from their societies.  Only a small proportion ever become violent.

So while elements like poverty, maleness, Islam, martyrdom culture, and disaffection may contribute to the profiles of suicide terrorists, they can only ever be proximate causes.

This is because there are just too many exceptions to the above profile. Some suicide terrorists have been wealthy (9/11), female (Palestinians and Tamils), or non-Muslim (Tamil Tigers).

Sure, they were all radicalised and disaffected; but this doesn’t exactly constitute a useful profile.

It’s also important to view the issue from the other direction: there are tens of millions of poor, disaffected, male, Muslims who have never been involved in any political violence.

So we’re back to where we started.


Famed political scientist, Robert Pape’s “rationalist” view on terrorism attempts to shed some light.

He contends that terrorists are rational and have clear and specific goals – usually to force out occupiers – and that suicide terrorism is a particularly effective method.

He presents reams of evidence and has convinced many of his colleagues around the world. But on closer inspection, this “rationalist” approach simply does not work.

What makes one person more “rational” that another? What drives the “rational” actor to commit atrocities whereas most others – even if they agree with the “rationalist” aims – would not?

An anthropologist, Scott Atran, helps break the impasse, and takes on Pape in quite a spectacular fashion. He points out that while Pape’s statistical evidence seems ostensibly unassailable, there’s a problem with Pape’s sampling.

Despite Pape’s claims that nationalist groups such as the Tamil Tigers and the Kurdish PKK have engaged in significant acts of terrorism, they have indeed carried out very few at all since Septermber 11.

And while it’s true that the Tigers were – at the time of writing, anyway – individually the most prolific group, committing 77 suicide acts since the beginning of their conflict, they could not compete with the Iraqi aggregate of 2005 alone which involved 400 attacks killing 2000 people.

Pape also judges success of terrorist missions by a single criterion: the removal of an occupying force.

There’s a glaring hole in this argument too: terrorism where there was no real occupation (al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan pre September 11) can cause occupation (Afghanistan post September 11).

Nor can Pape’s thesis explain the Egyptian JI suicide missions that killed 1500 people over a 30 year period. Not only  does Egypt not experience any occupying force, but the Said area of Egypt, from which most JI member come,  has never experienced any colonial domination.

In Palestine, terrorism often led to reoccupation of Palestinian land or more draconian measures from the Israeli government.

All these examples demonstrate that the reality is far too complex for such a simple thesis.

Pape is perhaps so popular among other political scientists because his argument is based on the idea that suicide terrorists are simply a form of resistance against colonisation. But even a very cursory look at various organisations shows that this argument cannot be seen as an ultimate cause.

Atran argues this beautifully:

“When Egyptian Bedouin are dying to kill European tourists and the Egyptians who cater to them; when British citizens blow themselves up along with other British because of the country’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; when jihadis exclusively target co-religionists linked to the secular government in Bangladesh…; when Malaysian bombers kill Australians and Balinese Hindus in Indonesia as “self-defense” in a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the United States; and when Arabs from more than a dozen countries rush to embrace death in Iraq in order to kill Shi’as… it is quite a stretch to identify the common thread as a secular struggle over foreign occupation of a homeland, unless… “homeland” expands to at least three continents.”


If we look at all of Atran’s examples, however, we can see that they all involve Islamists. Atran’s thesis makes it even more tempting to view suicide terrorism through the Islamic lens. The Tamil Tigers, however, remind us that Islamism is does not have a monopoly on the tactic.

Ironically, Pape’s “rationalism” does Muslims a disservice. His theory cannot explain the necessity of creating and promoting “a culture of martyrdom.”

If the logical reasons for suicide terrorism and its usefulness were sufficiently convincing for their communities, there would be no need to expend considerable energy constructing elaborate propaganda and a discourse of reverence for self-sacrifice, as so many groups do.

This means that if we take Pape at face value, we have to assume that the Muslims engaging in cultures of martyrdom are doing so because there is something inherent in the culture that drives the phenomenon.

In short, by bending over backwards to present a non-patronising theory of non-western terrorists, Pape leaves the door wide open for the dreaded, “essentialists” – people who argue that aspects of race/culture are inherent and cannot be combated.

Neither Atran nor Pape adequately answers the central question of this post in the series: if Islam breeds terrorism, what makes one Muslim a terrorist and another not?

Perhaps both sides of the ideological divide have simply been asking the wrong questions.

Rather than Islam’s causing terrorism, terrorist aims require the construction of a particular sort of political Islam. Islam has had to be remoulded to justify methods and goals that are actually not “fundamentalist,” but quite new.

Faced with the collapse of old orders and the onslaught of modernity, certain Islamist thinkers, key among them, Syed Qutb and Ayatolla Ruollah Khomenei, have had to reinvent a view of Islam (often using western ideas) that could compete with the various forces such men perceived as annihilating their identity and their honour.

In the next post, I’ll explain exactly what I mean by, “honour.” I’ll demonstrate the role that honour plays in reinventing a culture under siege and how necessary it is to radicalisation.

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Related posts:

  1. The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism – Introduction
  2. Part Six – Axis of Honour Final: Palestinian Suicide Terrorism
  3. Bren Carlill of AIJAC Responds to Part Two – Axis of Honour
  4. Part Four – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Modernity, and al Qaeda
  5. Part Five – Axis of Honour: Dislocation, Family, and Terror

11 Responses to “Part Two – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism”

  1. “… there is always some factor that makes him/her feel disengaged or rejected from his society.”

    Where is the evidence of this? I reckon this is another of those myths that go along with “despair” being the root cause of terrorism.

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  2. Amos says:

    As an officer in the infantry corps, I was retrained during my years of reserve duty to ‘debrief’ Hizbollah militia including dozens captured on their way to commit suicide attacks.

    Contrary to what is written above, I was always surprised by how disconnected the would-be suicide bombers were from what they were about to do and how disaggrieved they seemed. In all but one of my debriefs, the hostages were relaxed and seemingly euphoric. I always perceived that they were ‘whole’ with their decision to die.

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  3. Amos says:

    Actually, my experience in recruiting the same demographic to operate against their own people has left me convinced that (1) everyone has their price and (2) the people in question have no ‘honour’ per se.

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  4. Bren Carlill says:

    The Sensible Jew wrote about me thus:

    “Bren Carlill of AIJAC, recently wrote in The Australian, about the need to ban Hizbollah’s television station, al Manar.

    “In doing so, he tried to link The Lexicon project, the recently foiled terrorist attacks on a Sydney army base, and al Manar. He did this by building on the assumption that Islam is the common thread that menaces the West.

    “Of course, he included the caveat that not all Muslims are terrorists, and that was remarkably broad minded of him.

    “But Carlill failed to demonstrate exactly how Islam operates as the driving force behind terrorism. He assumes, and assumes we assume, that it is a given.

    “He is wrong.

    “At least there was a degree of analytic thought behind Carlill’s piece.”

    That last sentence was very generous, and I thank you. The rest, however, is codswallop.

    My initial reaction to reading this is that your analysis of what I wrote is because of three things – my poor writing skills, which prevented me from getting the point I wanted across; the opinion editor at The Australian, who cut some of (what I thought were) the important bits from my submitted article; and possibly your assumptions about what you think my assumptions are.

    Either way, I’m glad you brought them up here, because it allows me to better explain what I meant to convey in the article.

    My linking of the three items served only to begin the article. For three different reasons, ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ appeared in the same newspaper articles. Highlighting this was a way to get people to read past the first paragraph. I in no way attempted to build “on the assumption that Islam is the common thread that menaces the West.” To further that point, I was not trying to demonstrate “how Islam operates as the driving force behind terrorism.” Many other people try to make that point. It is not a point that I choose to make or one I believe needs making.

    My point of that part of the article where I discussed the Lexicon of Terrorism project, is that if we go to great lengths to avoid describing Muslim terrorists as Muslim in order not to insult or alienate Australia’s various Muslim communities, we remove the possibility of understanding why Muslim terrorists operate.

    People become radicalised for all sorts of reasons. There is no one reason why they become so. It is not just because they watch a television station that glorifies terrorism, for instance. And nor is it just because they are annoyed at US and/or Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. It is a combination of lots of influences – each individual will be influenced to greater or lesser degrees by different influences. These influences can include those I’ve listed. They can also include influential teachers, religious leaders or youth group leaders. They can include alienation from the mainstream culture. (This alienation can be caused by racism, and it can also be caused by communal or social rejection of the mainstream culture – that is, a refusal to be integrated (again, for various possible reasons), which causes alienation. Or it could be a mixture of outward racism and inward rejection of integration.) It could be an individual or communal victimhood mentality – ‘I/we haven’t succeeded because of what they have done to me/us.’

    When people become radicalised, they can become politically radicalised or they can become religiously radicalised. Usually, when someone is religiously radicalised – especially when we are discussing Islam, which sees the separation of church and state different from the Christian tradition – politics and religion will overlap and reinforce each other.

    People can and do become religiously radicalised and not participate in or support violence. Other people can and do end up either supporting or preparing to participate in violence. If these people are religiously radicalised Muslims, they will be supporting and/or participating in violence both in the name of Allah, but also in the name of what most non-Islamists will see as territorial disputes.

    When a Christian becomes religiously radicalised and blows up an abortion clinic, they are acting according to the will of God, as they see it. I see no problem highlighting that when discussing their terrorist actions. If a Christian or anyone else became insulted by me highlighting the espoused Christianity of a violent anti-abortionist, I’d tell them to get over it.

    In order not to offend anyone, be they non-Muslim Australians, Muslim Australians or Muslims living in Australia of other citizenships, we can studiously avoid mentioning a terrorist’s ethnicity or religion. However, I think it relevant to a discussion about terrorism or a terrorist movement that we mention and/or discuss a terrorist’s motivations. Only by discussing a terrorist’s motivations can we begin to understand why a person would want to participate in violence against a fellow human. Since violent Islamist terrorists are quite open about wanting to act according to (their perceptions of) the will of Allah, I don’t see why we should avoid talking about it.

    Finally, that you wrote, “he included the caveat that not all Muslims are terrorists,” is somewhat nasty. It appears to me that you are implying that I’m suggesting most Muslims are terrorists, or even a substantial amount or whathaveyou. I specifically wrote that Islamists (which can include violent and non-violent people) are a minority of Muslims, and violent Islamists are a minority of Islamists.

    It might be of interest that I wrote the following in the article, which was omitted by the editor:

    “Instead of dropping these terms, the Lexicon of Terrorism project should encourage media to drop the term ‘moderate Muslim.’

    “Labelling a Muslim ‘moderate’ presupposes a number of things. First, that the labeller has enough knowledge of Muslim theology to determine whether someone is moderate or radical.

    “Second, it results in a non-Muslim judging who is a ‘good’ Muslim and who is not.

    “Third, it can indirectly lead to the assumption that any Muslim not thus described is radical, and to be feared.”

    Perhaps if that had have been included, your snide implication that I think most Muslims are terrorists might not have made it into your comments about me.

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  5. [...] Part Two – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism [...]

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  6. [...] Part Two – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism « Part Four – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Modernity, and al Qaeda [...]

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  7. sensiblejew says:

    Hi David.

    Good to see you.

    Disaffection/rejection is largely self-reported by captured terrorists who are interviewed by academics. At the end of the series, I’ll post a bibliography with links (where possible).

    Be that as it may, as I wrote in the post, that terrorists feel disaffected, is hardly the stuff of good profiling. It’s just one of those starting points pretty much every academic uses as a platform for his/her own theoretical framework.

    It’s actually a truism: of course you have to be peeved and feel disconnected before you’ll blow youorself and as many people as possible up.

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  8. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Amos, and welcome.

    Thank you for your contribution. It’s extremely valuable to hear from someone who has been at the coalface.

    The euphoria you write about is actually in keeping with the general idea of the series.

    In the coming posts, I’ll write about the power of reclaimed honour to transform a person. Your experience of terrorists’ euphoria is at the end point of their radicaisation process. When I write about disaffection, it refers to the initial state of a person who is a candidate for radicalisation.

    I hope you’ll return to read the rest of the series, and look forward to your responses.

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  9. sensiblejew says:

    Amos, once again, it’s great to have someone who has worked in the field.

    Whether everyone has their price is an interesting question. But I would ask, what is the currency being sought, or on offer?

    Money? Fame? Family? Glory? Honour?

    As for, “honour,” I’m using the word in a very specific sense that will be better explained in the coming posts. I really hope you’ll read them and comment further.

    The next instalment is coming within the next hour or so.

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  10. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Bren.

    Thank you for your reply. There’s a lot there and I won’t be able to respond properly till later tonight/tomorrow morning.

    I thank you for taking the time to comment.

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